Connectivity for indigenous communities

Author: Asha Carpenter, Research assistant, RAND Europe

Not everyone is connected

Access to the internet is taken for granted by billions of people around the world and has become an essential part of everyday life allowing connection, communication and collaboration. However, many rural and remote communities have been left behind and therefore cannot benefit from the opportunities that the internet offers. This has led to digital divides with remote communities encountering unique challenges to become connected.

The Internet Society held its first Indigenous Connectivity Summit in November 2017 which brought together around 200 people including community members, Indigenous leadership, policy makers, network operators, Indigenous-owned internet service providers and researchers to discuss how Indigenous communities can connect themselves to the internet. Delegates attending the Summit discussed the issues associated with use of the internet in remote regions across North America. These include Alaska Native, American Indians, Inuit, First Nations and Métis communities. The meeting was preceded by a two day session for Indigenous people to provide training in the use of community networks.

Connectivity challenges faced by Indigenous communities

Where internet exists in Indigenous communities, the service tends to be poor because of high costs, low speeds and restrictions on data transfer. Despite the problems, connection to the internet is a lifeline for remote communities and is vital for giving them access to health, education and economic progress. During the Summit, a number of challenges that remote communities face to achieve sustainable connectivity were identified. These include the difficulty of delivering services to communities that span large geographical areas and the high cost associated with the infrastructure necessary to deliver the services. Complex issues were identified relating to regulations and policy and the permissions required for community networks. Often there are very few options for internet service providers in remote areas, making them expensive, and the concept of a competitive market was addressed at the Summit as a means to drive prices down. Lack of education and interest in the technologies required for sustainable connectivity within these communities also acts as a barrier for connectivity.

Communities developing their own networks

People working collaboratively to develop community networks allows them to connect their city, village or town to the internet for their own needs. These networks require combining community resources and a level of organisation within them to enable the community to build and operate their own network. This can help solve the problem of providing internet access in areas where commercial networks will not venture due to operational costs not being economically viable. Proactivity within remote locations can enable connectivity which is under the control of the communities themselves. Participants at the Summit shared stories of successful Indigenous community networks in The United States, Canada and other countries.

Empowering Indigenous communities through internet access

Being digitally connected provides opportunities for business start-ups, advancing health outcomes, educational resources and preservation of culture and language. Using community networks allows people in remote locations to create internet access that will help them address their own priorities and goals and therefore give them autonomy. Traditions within Indigenous communities such as their music, stories and ceremonies passed down through the generations could be stored in digital libraries and connectivity can be a powerful means for preserving languages and culture, some of which have not been written down. The internet can also act as a tool to spread awareness of issues surrounding the rights of Indigenous people and to counteract stereotyping.

Presenters at the Summit highlighted the economic benefits of connectivity for Indigenous communities such as the ability to set up home businesses and collaborative ventures. Access to healthcare advice through, for example, telemedicine could reduce the differences in long term health prospects between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The positive impacts connectivity could produce for employment and education include providing access to remote educational resources such as apps and video tutorials for young people in communities that do not have their own schools.

Solutions for reducing the digital divide

The Summit provided six recommendations for ensuring connectivity for remote communities including:

  • Providing sustainable and creative solutions that are vital for longer-term progress for access to the digital world.

  • Developing a supportive environment with polices, funding opportunities and education to aid Indigenous community networks.

  • Strengthening the skills and educational opportunities for youth to enable them to build and maintain community networks.

  • Minimising the digital divide by making access to spectrum easier.

  • Building infrastructure that is robust and reliable.

  • Increasing the research into measuring the progress of Indigenous connectivity.

The Indigenous Connectivity Summit has started a conversation about how to increase inclusion for Indigenous communities and allow them to have internet access that is sustainable, affordable and of high quality. In particular the Summit highlighted how community networks can be used to enable communities to develop connectivity solutions for their own specific needs.

Connectivity issues are present within the UK with divides between rural and urban areas. Although not on the same scale as experienced by Indigenous communities in North America, lessons could be learnt from the Summit to help any rural community that faces challenges of getting connected.